With this last week we finally saw the Blood War, now known as the Fourth War, finally come to an end on Azeroth. This was one of the most pivotal parts of the expansion, being the predominate narrative marketing behind Battle for Azeroth. Hyped up with the beginnings of its previous expansion, Legion, World of Warcraft has been awaiting a major confrontation between two polar opposite figures in its world for quite some time. Truly, two no better candidates arose than Anduin Wrynn, King of the Alliance, and Sylvanas Windrunner, the undead Warchief of the Horde. The world was prepared for two diametrically opposing forces to strike in a total conflict. How did that play out?
Of course, spoilers ahead.
Veteran readers might recall our article nearly a year ago on the first volley fired in the War Campaign, the War of Thorns. This was a pre-expansion event that featured a host of gameplay problems, from repeated armor drops, no meaningful rewards aside from a quest-gated faction mount, and wretched issues with the server sharding systems. Insult was only added to injury with merely unlocking daily quests, which were later replaced with live content in patch 8.1 and the massive void left by Legion’s artifact weapon system. All of this was compounded by a mind-boggling narrative.
In an effort to stop a war before it begins, Sylvanas Windrunner and her two right-hand men, Nathanos Blightcaller and High Overlord Varok Saurfang, decide to wage a surprise war on their neighbors to the north. The Alliance-loyal Night Elves had often waged war on the Horde’s holdings and could be a threat to their continental hold. So they charged the Elven homelands with a goal in mind: to capture their island home Teldrassil and hold the natives hostage until the Alliance left Horde territory. Ideally, they’d also kill one of their major heroes and kill any hope the Night Elves might have in their future.
This is immediately where Battle for Azeroth’s writing took a nose-dive for the worst.
While fighting the Warchief, Night Elf hero Malfurion Stormrage was ambushed by Saurfang with an axe to the back. Instead of killing him herself, Sylvanas left his murder to be done by a Saurfang who was clearly in shock and disgust in himself for such a dishonorable act. Then, Tyrande Whisperwind, another Night Elven leader, rescued Stormrage and fled the war. However, she did not return to their fortified island home, they instead fled to another continent and abandoned their people.
Then, after Saurfang reported the heroes had escaped, Sylvanas decided to set Teldrassil on fire and kill thousands due to the cajoling of a dying Night Elf.
If that last paragraph seems a little odd in terms of its narrative structure, you’re not alone. There is a lot of, ‘and then’s, instead of, ‘therefore’s. Instead of, ‘Saurfang let Malfurion flee, therefore Sylvanas destroyed Teldrassil,’ plot points do not feel they have consequences or at least consequences that matter. Something similar happened famously in the adult American animated sitcom South Park during it’s 20th season. Featuring a large over-arching parody of the 2016 Presidential election, acts between characters featured consequential narrative actions.
For example, because a character’s internet trolling antics angered the Danish people, they threatened to release everyone’s private internet history. Therefore, because Hillary Clinton has something to hide (in the show, of course), she is forced to hire that same internet troll to erase her dark history. Consequential storytelling builds off of ‘therefore’ and ‘in retaliation’ moments. Peak decisions that have cause-and-effect relationships. While Battle for Azeroth does possess these, in a way, most are either very poorly handled or simply don’t exist.
Take, for example, the Alliance’s first War Campaign quests. It is discovered as the Alliance begins to encroach into Zandalar, that Sylvanas has allied herself with vampiric mages known as the San’layn. These horrific undead were once the most zealous of the Lich King’s commanders and possess an unrivaled thirst for living blood. Opposed to the Alliance’s stealth operations, the San’layn attempted to curb them step after step and time after time again. Therefore, the Alliance make them a primary target. As such, the San’layn try to retaliate and the plot builds over several quests. Finally, they are slain during a Horde operation on the open sea, killed dead by alliance assassins…
…And that is the end of that plot hook.
Then we come to a problem in the plot overall, not just simply in Battle for Azeroth. Due to the gaps of time that World of Warcraft has between major expansions and their current plan to build new expansions from older characters, things get slow. At least when it comes to narrative development. This is all well and good when it comes to major characters such as Gul’dan, who at the end of Warlords of Draenor set up Legion.
Then we have situations like the San’layn. The San’layn never comes up ever again in either the Alliance or the Horde War Campaign. In fact, if you exclusively play as a Horde character, you’d never know these San’layn existed. This rather demonstrates one of the more effective concepts of narrative development known as Chekhov’s Gun.
Chekhov’s Gun is the narrative concept that describes how every single element of a story should contribute to the whole. In a novel, commentary about the world around you adds to the world building. Dialogue in a movie should add more to the story instead of, like in films such as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, filling random scenes with needless drivel. Every portion of a story should contribute in a way that makes sense and pays off. In the words of the man who coined the phrase, Anton Chekhov, “If in the first act you have a hung pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it in there.”
From the San’layn, to Saurfang, this principle applies through Battle for Azeroth’s storytelling. This, more than any other character, ultimately applies to Nathanos Blightcaller.
From the get-go of the expansion, Nathanos is the Horde’s dour overseer. He’s cruel, cold, calculating, but entirely devoted to the task at hand. While he fights avidly for the Warchief (and will tell you so to your face), it’s clear his goals are in line for the Horde as well. Despite clear affections for her Champion, Sylvanas was publicly rebuked all throughout the expansion’s storyline and beyond. His anti-Alliance sentiments were high and powerful, even to the point of murdering treasonous members of the Horde without command. While he is a dog of war, he is spurned on solely by his hatred of the living Alliance and revenge against them. While his devotion to Sylvanas is fanatical, it’s clear he is in no mood to mingle outside of his purpose.
Then we come to the Mak’gora. Saurfang’s now famous, and excellent, moment of redemption and heroism is witnessed by every mortal who matters on Azeroth. However, Sylvanas’ revelation that the Horde is nothing to her falls on only two important ears. The first of them being ‘Bannerbae,’ the First of Her Name and true *Tink Tink* of the Horde (that is canon, look it up). The second is every member of the Horde and the Alliance except Nathanos. Catching up with the pair after Sylvanas’ escape, one can find Nathanos calling her his, “love,” seemingly leaving all of his development to one side. His vengeance is abandoned, his battle lust discarded, and his cold demeanor finally accepts unrequited feelings simply ‘because.’
This is only one of several unfired ‘guns’ throughout the plot, or moments that seem written simply to advance the plot because it frankly has nowhere else to go. Dazar’alor, the capital of the Zandalari Empire, is besieged and ransacked because despite their firm refusal to side with the Horde, they are a clearly neutral port allowing the Horde a place to stay. A neutral tactical target raided, ransacked, and having their king slain. In the same raid, we have the, “Death” of Gelbin Mekkatorque, leader of the Gnomes.
Except he’s not dead because he’s in a frozen cryogenic pod that no one can open. For some reason. Then of course we have the infamous moment of Tyrande Whisperwind quite literally telling Anduin Wrynn to piss off, merely to undertake a life-threatening ritual to the 1% of her surviving race to kill the Horde just because.
Some of this is incumbent of a game that now tries to setup its next expansion with the content of a current expansion. There are some plot threads that will inherently be dropped or avoided even when they don’t make sense to do so (ie. Why is Malfurion not fighting Azshara? Why aren’t ANY of the major Night Elves who didn’t take the ritual?). But that develops a weakened narrative as a whole, especially when a side-plot begins to be set-up to take over the end of the expansion. Despite us being sold a total world war with Battle for Azeroth, instead we now have an odd thing.
It’s often said that the only things we remember about a story are the beginning and the end. The beginning for how well it steps off and the end for how heavy of a conclusion it leaves. Much like the newest Avengers: Endgame, Battle for Azeroth was very much tied as the powerful continuation of a building tension in Azeroth. Instead of an engaging, earthshaking story we were instead taken on a trip of terrible stutters and stops. Where a cohesive, self-contained tale could have carried Azeroth up until Patch 8.2.5, instead we now find ourselves with a muddled mess. Where Red and Blue once clashed to light the world aflame, we now instead have a morally grey trash-heap. In an effort to make a story with Game of Thrones-esque twists and turns, we were left with an unfulfilling pile of confusing drivel.